Jackelyn Silva misses the days when she could store food in her cabinets without giving it a second thought. Or step away from the kitchen table for a moment without a worry. “You can’t cook breakfast and leave it there,” she said, “because once you turn, you’ve got a roach on your food.”
It’s not just roaches in her apartment in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but rodents too. Mice, mainly — she thinks. “Some of the mice look like baby rats,” she said. She takes pictures so she can compare the images. She empties her cabinets so she can deep clean. She buys hard plastic containers so she can store her food where rodents can’t tear open packaging. Still, nothing keeps away the infestations, which began five years ago.
“I don’t know how many mouse traps I’ve gone through in this apartment,” she said. “We have them on the kitchen counters, on the floors, in the cabinets. I’m a very clean person and to see all of these roaches and mice, it’s embarrassing to have people over.”
Ms. Silva has asked for and received exterminating services from Kraus Management, the company that manages the building, but the fumigations have not helped.
There’s also mold in the apartment, which is an acute issue for Ms. Silva who has asthma and multiple sclerosis. Her husband, Rafael Silva, is her caretaker. “We make ends meet,” she said.
It all makes for an unhealthy environment in which to raise their three daughters. AmirahRose is their youngest, at 8, and, like her mother, has asthma.
In early 2023, AmirahRose became sick with pneumonia symptoms, and in February she was placed in an induced coma for a week. One of her lungs collapsed completely while the other collapsed partially. Eventually, she recovered.
The quality of life outside the apartment is also problematic. For a while, the door to the building could be jimmied open with a MetroCard. The hallways are often filled with cigarette smoke, unfamiliar faces and the smell of urine. The washing machines rarely work and the coin boxes are sometimes broken to remove the money.
When the elevator broke down in 2018, the tenants in the building formed an association with help from Southside United H.D.F.C., more commonly known as Los Sures, a local housing advocacy organization. “In this neighborhood on the south side of Williamsburg, which is gentrifying really rapidly, her case is not abnormal,” said Lina Rénique-Poole, a tenant organizer with Los Sures who works with Ms. Silva and others in the building. “Unfortunately, this is a normal experience of being a rent-stabilized or affordable housing tenant in Williamsburg.”
Some of the other units in Ms. Silva’s building do not have such extensive histories of rodent infestations and she’s put in a request to move to a different apartment, but it has yet to happen. She worries that if she left the building altogether it might be difficult to find another home in the neighborhood where her family has built a life over the last 15 years.
And the issue of rodents is a problem in every borough. In May of 2013, there were 1,159 complaints to the city about rodent infestations; a decade later that number doubled to 2,350, according to the city’s Open Data website.
$444| Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Jackelyn Silva, 39
On family: For Ms. Silva, one of the hardest parts of coping with her living conditions is seeing the effects on her three daughters. “They’re really spontaneous, cool kids — very quiet and respectable, but they’re sick of living with all these bugs and mice.”
On budgeting for food: Because it’s so difficult for Ms. Silva to store food without rodents getting to it, she often has to throw out items before they can be eaten. “I spend a lot of money on food,” she said.
Ms. Silva, whose family moved into their three-bedroom home in 2009, said service and communication from Kraus Management is hard to come by. “They won’t give us a phone number for the super, and if we call the management company, they never answer,” she said. “I get a machine and I leave a message, but they never get back to me.”
Lisa Zeiger, vice president of Kraus Management, acknowledged in an email that tenants in the building do not have a phone number for the building’s superintendent, but said tenants could still reach out for help. “We have a 24/7 day a week communications officer available for tenants to report repair work needed.”
Ms. Zeiger also noted that some of Ms. Silva’s cabinets had been replaced in January of 2023 to address concerns regarding mold and rodents. And she said that the front door had recently been fixed so that entry could no longer be gained with a MetroCard.
Still, the building currently has 47 open violations listed with Housing Preservation and Development, the city agency that administers Ms. Silva’s participation in Section 8, a federally funded program that helps cover housing costs for need-based candidates. When a building has as open violations, H.P.D. will suspend subsidy payments as part of their housing quality standards protocols, which are set up by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In the case of Ms. Silva’s apartment, H.P.D. pays $1,771.74 to supplement her monthly payment of $444, but discontinued the payments in August of 2023 because the unit did not pass a housing quality standards inspection.
Natasha Kersey, H.P.D.’s deputy press secretary, said in an email: “HPD’s Housing Quality Standards serve as a safeguard for tenants by ensuring that they have access to a secure, clean, and hazard-free home environment. Under no circumstances is it the tenant’s responsibility to pay for uncorrected violations that are attributed to the owner to repair.”
Ms. Zeiger wrote in her email that Kraus Management informs Section 8 tenants that they are only responsible for their portion of the rent. Yet Kraus invoices received by Ms. Silva show that the suspended Section 8 subsidies are included in the “total past due” provided on her statement.
She continued paying her portion of the rent until September when the tenant association organized a rent strike, putting the rent payments into an escrow account instead of submitting them to Kraus. “I said to myself, ‘It’s not fair, they’re getting my rent but still not fixing anything,’” Ms. Silva said.
She and another tenant filed a claim in housing court the following month, working with legal representation they gained through Communities Resist, a legal services nonprofit.
Erin Henegan, the lawyer representing Ms. Silva, said the hazardous conditions in the building amount to potential harassment. “The landlord isn’t allowed to hold the tenant accountable for the Section 8 portion of the rent,” she said, “but they’ll still try to apply pressure to the tenant, to try to get them to apply pressure to the Section 8 program to start paying again.”
Ms. Silva said she started receiving letters threatening court action for nonpayment last summer and they haven’t stopped. “I’ve received so many of them,” she said, “I could make an album.”
She said that while she was nervous about filing the claim in court, she knew it was something she had to do. “I’m going to stand up for me and my family and my kids,” she said. “Because if I don’t, who will?”
She wants to be able to turn away from her breakfast plate for a moment. She wants to stop holding the door to her home together with duct tape, and she wants to stop fielding calls from AmirahRose’s teacher, expressing concern about another mention of roaches in the family’s apartment.
“I want my kids to be able to be healthy,” she said. “I want my youngest to not be scared to go into the kitchen to get something to eat or drink.”